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Sun stares down Red Hat with Solaris 10

The price is right for war

If you can't beat them, join them and then beat them.

That appears to be the flag Sun Microsystems will be waving today as it officially unveils Solaris 10 (even though the OS won't actually ship until January). Sun is eliminating the fee customers have paid in the past to run Solaris x86 on Intel or AMD servers in a bid to make its software model more like that of Red Hat. In so doing, the Unix server maker hopes to regain ground lost as customers flocked to Linux boxes in the post-bubble era.

While the new pricing scheme will steal most of the headlines, let's not forget that Solaris 10 arrives with a $500m investment and close to 600 new features. Sun is the most regular of OS makers on the planet, delivering a new version of its flagship OS every two years with fanfare unmatched by main rivals HP and IBM and consistency unimagined in Redmond.

On the pricing front, Solaris/SPARC customers won't notice any real changes. Sun has long bundled in the price of its OS as part of the total "system" or server buy, making the actual cost of Solaris pretty irrelevant. The same policy, however, did not apply for Solaris x86 customers who faced a sliding scale of per processor charges to use the operating system on their Xeon or Opteron boxes.

Now Sun will offer a three-tiered model for the x86 crowd.

In the coming months, Sun will finally release an open source version of Solaris. It's still debating between two licenses - it won't say which ones - but once the lawyers make up theirs minds, developers and plain, old code freaks will get a free look at the Solaris innards. This is Sun's attempt to stir up more developer interest in its OS and to mimic Red Hat's unsupported Fedora operating system.

What will be of more interest to Sun's customer base is a new mid-tier release of Solaris 10 x86 that is totally free of charge and ready for use on production boxes. Sun will give customers free security updates for this version of the OS but not support or bug fixes.

"We're hoping that people may be happy to download this commercial version of Solaris and basically use it at no charge to convince themselves that it's as cool as they think it is," said Mark McLain, vice president for software marketing at Sun.

Sun manages to garner a lot of attention for new versions of Solaris and is hoping that some of those folks that went with Linux will be tempted to give Solaris another try. This mid-tier pricing model gives Intel and AMD server customers a chance to test Solaris for free.

The third-tier of Sun's Solaris x86 pricing scheme is pretty much exactly like Red Hat's top offering. Customers will pay for bug fixes and various levels of support. The price start at $120 per year, per processor for bug fixes. Support then ranges from $240 to $360 per year. A customer could expect to pay somewhere in the range of $1,440 for top-of-the-line support on a four-processor Opteron server.

Sun believes its prices will undercut those of Red Hat on a per processor basis by a decent margin.

What must be remembered through all of this is that Sun's Solaris x86 customer base is still extremely small, so these policies are almost exclusively of interest to potential customers. Sun is pushing hard with its new fleet of Opteron servers, and this tiered pricing scheme should be appreciated by customers not running Linux or Windows on the kit.

What's more important to Sun's main customer base are the new features in Solaris 10.

It would not be out of line to make a bigger deal of the Solaris 10 bells and whistles if they were new in the classic sense of the word. Sun, however, has a program called Solaris Express where it gives users access to upcoming Solairs features ahead of time. Large customers can essentially begin using a new version of Solaris well before its "revenue" release. Sun is very methodical in the way that it makes the new Solalris tools available, and customers seem to appreciate this strategy. (Lord knows HP customers must be in awe of Sun's approach as they watch the HP-UX roadmap gyrate like a hooker on quarter night.)

We've covered just about all of the major new features in Solaris before, and will spare you the fine details this go round.

The main attractions include the DTrace debugging/performance improvment tool, the 128-bit ZFS file system, the Solaris Containers for running numerous partitions on a single copy of the OS, the Janus software for running Linux applications natively on Solaris, and the super-fast TCP/IP stack known as Fire Engine.

Sun tends to receive the highest marks from analysts and engineers for Solaris, and this release should follow this trend. Sun is basically claiming the OS is faster than ever before on SPARC and even faster now than Linux for a number of applications on x86 systems. The standard security strengths are there along with a host of new virtualization, management tools. ®

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